“There is no such thing as women’s poetry. There are only poems.”
Interviewed By: Kaveh Akbar
Women’s Poetry: Poetry & Advice came out six years after My Brother Is Getting Arrested Again, right?
Yeah, 2000 for the first book, 2006 for the second, then 2013. Which I feel is very slow.
How do you know when one is done?
I’m writing all of the time, at least a little bit. Virtually nothing I write gets to the point of being recognizable to me as a poem I would like to keep, so I write a lot and finish not very much. And I don’t write in book projects, though sometimes people will say the poems seem related to each other in some way.
I mean, I’ve had a number of ideas for projects or series and I’ll write and write and write, and maybe I’ll get a single poem out of it. So I don’t write in projects. I can’t do it.
I get enough poems to make a book and I start putting them together, get them in a dynamic order. Was it Larkin who talked about the mixtape method? The fast one, the slow one, the long one, the short one, the happy one, the sad one. I look at tone, pacing, thematic resonance, contrast. I don’t tend to think in terms of subject matter much at all, although my poems usually have very clear subject matter. I actually think very abstractly, in terms of energies. Poems have energies, even within poems—you crash up against this and this feels too neat or that feels too chaotic. It’s almost like the way I understand Willem de Kooning painted and repainted and repainted until he got exactly the right effect, the right balance or imbalance. That’s what it feels like to me.
I got distracted imagining Larkin sitting in front of a dual cassette tape deck and recording from one to the other and physically making a mix tape for somebody, and I’m so thoroughly charmed by that image. But I will say, there are long poems in the newer collection, “Torment,” and the Italian poem, “Attenti Agli Zingari,” that encompass a lot of different energies. “Attenti Agli Zingari” is a travelogue, and then it’s also a political poem, and then it’s also a historical poem.
They happened very differently. Though both of those poems came out of me being away from home. My husband and I went to Rome three times back in the day. We went for two months at a time in 2000, 2004, and 2007. That was when airfare was still somewhat affordable, and only in the last trip did we have a kid, and we didn’t have to pay full fare for her—she could still sit in our lap. We can’t afford to travel anymore.
But we had enough money and enough time then to just go rent a cheap apartment in Rome and live there. I’m not actually writing poems when I travel, I’m just writing in journals and taking notes and stuff so I had all these notebooks. And eventually I started to write pieces of it the poem. We were seeing Rome change. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars were going on, people protested the wars, there were fascist demonstrations and leftist demonstrations. I just kept putting it together. I worked a lot on the individual pieces of “Zingari” and then tried to order them in the right way. Almost like you would order a manuscript.
So in that poem, in terms of personal narrative, little things happen to me, little interactions, and I’m carrying around the baby, who’s basically a kind of stage prop, but I think the poem is reportorial at its heart.
Whereas in “Torment,” there’s more of a through-story: the speaker is riding on a commuter train with a bunch of privileged college students who are coming back from Wall Street job interviews. I had all the observation—of the train, of the students—pretty much the way I wanted it—I can manipulate people in scenes pretty well. But how to get it all to matter to the “I”? So here I am, a published poet and teacher and I can’t get a full-time job without an MFA and do I really want the job anyway, and what do I do as a mom who is also a writer and still make ends meet? That’s when autobiography starts to matter. The quandary of the poem in some way needs to be the speaker’s quandary. Sometimes I can make up that quandary, and sometimes trying to insert the conditions of my own life is what starts to make the poem perform as it should. “Torment” isn’t dissimilar to my own life, though there are borrowed stories and fiction and exaggeration throughout. In “Torment,” which I think is about the plight of the middle class in America, I needed the speaker’s story, and thoughts, and gestures, and actions to make the students’ stories work, and vice versa.
So you can observe all you want, and you can observe other people’s problems all you want but you have to get at the emotional and maybe the political repercussions for the speaker. That doesn’t mean you necessarily confess, that doesn’t mean you have to tell true facts, or anything like that. It means you can use narrative in a way that will make the poem be about more than just how you feel about something.
Right, that makes total sense.
I guess all I’m saying is that I’m not anti-lyric poetry, which is really like, “I feel this,” right? That’s what lyric poetry is. I’m not anti-lyric poetry, but the feelings and events should matter to the speaker. Should feel experienced by the speaker, not merely observed. That’s the way I feel about my poetry anyway. Other people can manage other lyric moves very well, but for me, if it’s not happening to the speaker, it doesn’t become a poem.
I think that what you’re getting at is just a push against frivolity. If you’re going to have an “I” in the poem, then there has to be stakes for the “I.”
You’ve said, “I use story and the word ‘I’ as strategies toward getting the poems to a place of what I hope is interesting uncertainty.” I very much like that way of thinking about the utility of an ‘I.’
I don’t want my poems to be me walking through the museum of the world and simply reacting in pretty language. “I” is a means to an end, a strategy for immediacy, a force or an energy. There’s a sense of productive irony and a performativity to the speaker. So for example, she might be very self-pitying, but hopefully there’s ironic distance and the poet uses the speaker to reveal this—it’s the Frank O’Hara thing where there’s emotion and the parody of emotion going on at the same time.
I use my own life, however fictionally, however obliquely. Because I’m spending a lot of time writing and teaching and reading, that’s one of the things I think about and so excuse me, it gets into my poems. I have my kid and my kid gets into my poems. I think about the election and the election gets into my poems. The poem really is this field for anything to get in. I’m very interested in poems that have mixed feelings and seem to be wanting to do conflicting things and somehow make a virtue of it.
And then, there are the poems that are written because a poet has an urge to write about something. Susan Stewart has this poem called “1936” about a woman rolling cigarettes cigars in a factory. She does this beautiful description of the woman doing that and at the end she says:, no this is not your subject, “you, genre painter,” you should not be using her, “or you who could build from this some plot strung with ornaments,” turn away, do something else. She is not yours. I love that—the urge in that poem to say, “I want to write about this woman in the factory and I acknowledge I’m making art of somebody else’s labor.” And I like the poem that can do both. It wants and refuses to romanticize.
Totally. That’s great.
Or the literary dead animal! You know, that deer the poet ran into with a car becoming a figure for the human experience? The world becomes this opportunity to emote upon. I feel very resistant to that, and at the same time I want to acknowledge that urge. Humans will react and emote, I do all the time. And I feel sentimental about my grandma and I feel sentimental about my kid, you know?
And I don’t want to falsify. Making the dead deer a symbol of human whatever, that falsifies reality. But to leave it out altogether also falsifies in another way, right? So how can you do both so that both falsifications, or call it both narratives, comment on each other? That’s one of the things I’m always working at in my poems.
Sure, and I think that there’s something at work with your becoming an eminent poetry critic, becoming encyclopedically aware of the moves a poet can make—
Or at least appear as if I am encyclopedically aware.
Haha. But with that awareness, there’s maybe an anxiety of recognizing the gestures, of wanting to say, “I see what I’m doing here, I want you to know I know what I’m up to.”
Right. But you also sort of want to surprise yourself, right? Get out of your depth, back yourself into a corner and write your way out of it.
I had a grad student a while back, a really interesting poet, and she had just started writing. She’s about my age, but she just started writing a few years ago, and she’s was sort of startled to find herself being a poet, and said she was worried about whether she really belonged in the program. Which is absurd because she’s a really good writer. I admire her work and the program admires her work, but she was expressing this insecurity. And I wrote a sort of pep talk/lecture to her and said, “Look if you’re feeling confused about your poetry and what it should be and where it should go, good, you’re a writer!” I hate to admit this, but if a teacher says they have an answer for you, if any teacher represents themselves to you by saying, “this is what you should do with your poetry and this is how you should do it,” you should be very suspicious of that, you know?
I will always give you, strong opinions about your poems, but you should take that as an opportunity to do one of several things. You might say, “yeah, a great idea, I love that,” because somehow what I’ve seen aligns with what you’ve seen about your poem. Or you might say, “no, you’re crazy that’s so wrong.” But now you can articulate to yourself why you did what you did. Or you might, after considering and rejecting my advice, go in a different direction altogether. Any one of those outcomes is good.
Yeah! I was talking to Ellen Bryant Voigt not too long ago, and she was saying how as a musician you practice and learn to train the instincts. The more you practice scales and learn new things, the better you train your instincts. I think so much of writing is that. I think so much of guiding people through their writing is that. You talked about how, even though you're constantly writing, so little of it actually ends up being publishable poetry, but the whole time you’re writing you’re still training the instincts.
That’s right. That’s absolutely right, and Ellen says things so well, so succinctly. I get to see her at these residencies I go to at Warren Wilson, and just she’s so smart.
I love her. She’s one of my very very favorites.
I do think you’re always working as a poet, even when you’re not working. So much of being a poet is something else besides sitting down and writing a poem. A lot of it is knowing when not to write, when to go do something else and come back to it. A lot of it is just living. And I don’t mean you have to go herd goats in a foreign land or anything like that. I don’t know that drastic experiences or big exotic experiences are necessarily that important.
Absolutely, right. So, I love your poetry advice column. One of my favorite poetry anythings was this advice column Wislawa Syzmborska used to do—I don’t know if you’ve ever seen it.
No way, really?
Yeah, it’s incredible, she would totally shut people down and be very very unromantic in her answers. I’ll send it to you. But, needless to say, the end of Women’s Poetry, the advice column, is one of my favorite things of yours. I show it to people all the time.
I’m worried that some of the jokes are getting kind of dated.
Oh no, I don’t think so at all. I mean it’s great. There are these really perfect neologisms that could be Ambrose Bierce and The Devil’s Dictionary. “In church confession, Catholics confess their sins. In confessional poetry, persons of all faiths confess how all others have sinned against them.” It’s just so perfect and crisp and wonderful.
That’s great. Thank you! I had so much fun writing it.
I think we feel that reading it.
Actually, that idea came from Chris Wiman inviting me to contribute to a Poetry humor issue. He wanted either an advice column or classified ads. I don’t quite recall why I came up with the Poetess as the advice-columnist—except I’d recently been bemused by a discussion on a poetry listserv advocating taking the term “poetess” seriously, rescuing it from its traditionally condescending usage. And it kind of gave me an angle, you know? Where I could talk about anything, but develop this persona which was simultaneously ironic and sincere.
The poetess in your version is a sort of unisex, genderless term. You call Bukowski the greatest poetess.
Haha, yeah. And so I just tried to think of all the smartass things my husband and I talk about when we talk about poetry. 75% of our relationship is based on making the other person laugh. Jim was the one who suggested I put “Ask the Poetess” in the book. And that’s what the poetess is establishing— yes, there is such a thing as women’s poetry, I mean it sincerely. But also, there is no such thing as women’s poetry. There are only poems. Women’s Poetry is an ironic title, sure. But I mean it both completely ironically and completely sincerely and I can’t tell you which one is stronger. The Poetess’s main role is to make fun of everybody, including me, including herself.
It never seems mean-spirited. It’s really great. Do you want to talk about what you are working on now?
I’m feeling very happy right now because I’ve actually written two poems in the last two months. But it’s been really slow. I have maybe a third of a manuscript of poems. They’re on the shorter side, mostly.
I love a lot of your shorter poems. One of my favorite ones from the new collection was “Stolen Vehicle Discovered at the Junkyard,” about crushing the car. It’s almost a concrete poem—it kind of looks like if you’re looking at a car, with the headlight cavities.
Cool, that came through. Excellent. It’s good to write strong short poems because if you’re just browsing in a book of poems, that’s what you read first. I’m not going to read the eight page narrative poem, I’m going to read the seven-line poem and say, “Okay this person can write, I’ll try a thirteen line one.”
Years ago I read an interview with Lucia Perillo where the interviewer said to her, “You’ve typically written really long poems, but you started to write shorter poems,” and she goes, “Well, how else to get published in The New Yorker?” (I paraphrase.) I still haven’t done that, actually, but short poems are much easier for people to deal with.
One of my favorite American poets emailed me recently and said he had just used a recent poem of mine, a very short poem, less than a page long, along with a poem by another contemporary poet to compare “the poetics of reticence” and “the poetics of excess.” For a minute, I wondered which one I was. I think “the poetics of reticence,” but I’m not sure that that always would have been the case. I’ve been reading a lot of Brits and Irish poets, and they tend to be a little bit closer to the vest about what they want to tell you. More implication and suggestion. Maybe some of that is happening, there might be more sonic effects within the line.
Sometimes I’ll just sit down and think, I want more words, I want more vocabulary, more textures in all my words. Other times I just want to be really smooth and I want the poem to feel like it almost has no weight at all. That’s the extent to which I give myself prompts in writing. I’m just finding out where my poems are going. Maybe I’m about to jinx myself completely, but I feel like my dry period is starting to go away.
I’m thrilled to hear that. I can’t wait to see the collection whenever it comes out. I’m as excited to read its title as anything—you’re one of the literary world’s premiere titlers!
I have so many good titles! I just have to write the poems to go with them!
That’s a good problem to have though.
It is, right?
Interview Posted: December 14, 2015
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